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NBA

Bones Stole The Show

C. Morgan Engel/Getty Images

Regular-season NBA games that arrive with built-in narrative stakes often disappoint, particularly when the MVP race is the thing providing all the extra juice. A season-long competition can’t be neatly settled by one game featuring a head-to-head matchup between frontrunners, but that doesn’t prevent fans and pundits from tuning in and readying snap judgments about who is The Real MVP. Today, though, we have been spared such a fate by a rookie named Nah’Shon Hyland, a player who everyone just calls “Bones.”

Nikola Jokic vs. Joel Embiid was the selling point for Monday night’s nationally televised game between the Sixers and Nuggets. Both marvelous big men did fine for themselves—Jokic put up a 22-13-8 to go along with some customarily slick passing; Embiid dealt with foul trouble but still managed to get himself to the line 10 times and score 34 points—but in the end they, and everyone else on the court, were completely overshadowed by Bones Hyland. The Nuggets’ rookie point guard finished with 21 points in 31 minutes off the bench, and it was when and how he scored those points that really shone. Hyland scored 12 in the fourth quarter, and each of those 12 came via a fearless barrage of three-pointers that saw the Nuggets through to a 114-110 win.

For NBA fans who are not Nuggets obsessives—in other words, for most NBA fans—Monday night’s game was likely their first real exposure to Hyland. He picked the perfect night to pop off, not only because there was a big TV audience watching, but because the game was readymade to elevate his own inspiring narrative. Hyland played college ball at VCU and was drafted with the 26th pick of the 2021 draft, but before that he grew up in playing in Philly parks not far from his home town of Wilmington, Delaware. In 2018, a fire that killed his grandmother and cousin engulfed his home, forcing him to escape by leaping out of a second-story window, injuring his right knee in the process. The firefighters who rescued Hyland were in attendance last night, and they were joined by what Hyland estimated to be 600–700 fans who came to see him play. When Hyland went on his scoring run in the fourth quarter, you could hear the cheers for him inside the building.

Though Monday night’s game certainly featured one of the most impressive performances of Hyland’s young career, it didn’t come as a total shock to those of us who have been watching him closely all year. Hyland has certainly had the sort of struggles that most rookies experience while trying to adjust to life in the NBA, but he’s also spent his entire rookie campaign playing with the same fearlessness that was on display in Philly last night. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen Hyland pull up for an audacious three, or put his head down and drive right into a much bigger defender at the rim. For months now, I have had the annoying habit of rushing into Defector’s basketball Slack channel in order to encourage my coworkers to “take the Bones pill” every time Hyland hits a few shots or makes a nice play. This started out as kind of a half-ironic joke, but then Hyland just kept hitting shots and making nice plays, and my dosage just kept getting stronger.

Hyland’s rookie season in Denver has been more than just a nice individual story, too. The saying goes that the Nuggets are one of the best teams in the NBA when Nikola Jokic is on the floor, and one of the very worst whenever he sits on the bench. That’s an observation that’s supported by both gut feel and statistics, but on the rare nights when it hasn’t proven true, it’s been because of Hyland’s efforts. This is a team that is desperate for any kind of scoring and creative spark to help fill the voids left behind by Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., and although Hyland isn’t quite up to the task every night, he’s shown flashes throughout the season. Monday night was probably the best game the Nuggets bench has had all season—all five bench players finished with a positive plus-minus, while all five starters were in the negative—and it was Hyland who led the way. If the Nuggets really are going to head into the playoffs without either Murray or Porter, then they are going to have to find some way to keep games close while Jokic is on the bench. On Monday night, we saw what that might look like: Just give the ball to Bones and get out of his way.